, Salem, MA

Local News

July 23, 2007

At this summer school, kids learn about gardening - and life

DANVERS - Nathan Barclay tore up a hunk of grassy earth and carefully shook off the soil before placing it in a bowl.

That's in a day's work for Barclay and his classmates, who have embarked on a new kind of summer school, breathing life into an unused school courtyard by creating a vegetable garden.

"I think it looks beautiful," said Pam Hills, 16, who is in the Transitions Program for special education students at Danvers High.

"It's hard work," she said, as she dug a trowel into the earth to tear up overgrown grass and weeds around old concrete flagstones.

Emily Boulger teaches the Transitions Program, which focuses on life skills for students with disabilities. She applied for a state community service grant to build the garden, and the students plan to donate their harvest to the Danvers People to People Food Pantry.

"This is great because it ties into everything we do in the classroom," said Boulger, walking amid neat rows of tomato and bell pepper stalks.

"We studied plant and animal behavior this year, and we're using math to plot the garden and measure the plants and make charts, as well as writing about the garden's progression."

For Justin Killam, 17, who is working in a garden for the first time, it's fun - even if he and his classmates get sweaty and dirty.

"My favorite part is pulling up the grass," said the shy teen in the Red Sox cap.

"It's a lot of physical work," Boulger said. "It was hard for all of us at first; we had to get into a routine."

The students work in the garden four days a week, from roughly 8 to 10 in the morning, before the sun gets too hot, landscaping and nurturing their vegetable plants, which were mostly donated by Paisley Farm in Boxford.

As the students dug into the abandoned courtyard, they discovered a virtual pen and pencil cemetery - some buried as deep as a foot - where pens presumably fell out of school bags or were chucked out of surrounding classroom windows over the decades.

The class has also unearthed countless rocks and stones, which they cart back to the classroom to paint, and will return to the garden to adorn the gaps between the flagstones.

"They painted 30 rocks yesterday," said Boulger, who said the students' designs include a painting of SpongeBob SquarePants, a pig, a frog and "a couple of aliens."

Boulger said the project has lifted her spirits, as well as those of her students; they get be outside in the summer, and they see the fruits of their labor growing before their eyes.

"They are working independently, and they're working hard every day," said Cindy Cianfrocca, a special education aide who is helping with the class. " ... I'm watching them learning to work together and to help each other."

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